Walking in public with unconfidence
For people with social anxiety disorder, there may be times when we are walking down the street minding our own business. Suddenly, we start feeling super self-conscious, being very aware of how we are walking, what our facial expression is like, how we look, and whether other people are staring at us.
But why is this? Why does simply existing make us feel embarrassed?
The reason may lie in how social anxiety works. In social anxiety disorder, the main fear is negative evaluation – we worry about how we are perceived by other people.
When we are in the presence of other people, thoughts may come to mind regarding how they might feel about: “maybe they think I look weird or awkward”, “they probably think I look ugly”, among many other types of possible thinking errors. As such, even the thought of other people looking at us might induce feelings of embarrassment or shame.
As an avoidance behaviour, people with social anxiety may avoid eye contact or interactions with other people. Although this leads to short-term relief, avoidance behaviours can maintain our anxiety because our brain doesn’t get any evidence to suggest that its negative thoughts are wrong. We continue to believe that other people do not like us or are thinking of us in a negative light.
Reducing social anxiety through behavioural experiments
We are often more focused on ourselves than others. However, in social anxiety our brain can’t help but think that other people are focused on us. And that they are thinking negatively about us.
Behavioural experiments can be a great way to evaluate whether our anxious beliefs are true. They allow us to test our anxious belief (i.e., “that other people are thinking about us. And if they are, that they are thinking poorly of us”).
For example, when you go to the mall for shopping next day, make a conscious effort to take a look at what other people are doing. If you’re in an interaction with another person, try to keep eye contact and focus on the facts: evaluate their what their saying and how their saying it, their facial expression, and eye contact. Be as objective as possible.
If the experiment sounds a little too tough, start with something small and manageable, such as observing how the cashier interacted with you. Afterwards, reflect on whether our anxious belief was true and whether there were any learning points. For example, you may notice that the other person smiled when you smiled, and they made eye contact.
Avoiding confirmation bias in our observations
We tend to engage in a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias. That is, we search for evidence that supports our thoughts, such as homing in on when someone looks bored or frowns, as reasons why someone doesn’t like us.
On the other hand, we may ignore information that might be inconsistent with our belief that people do not like us. For example, we may explain away smiles or pleasant interactions as the other person just being polite.
In behavioural experiments, we are simply labelling the facts to avoid confirmation bias. We make note of both evidence that may support our anxious belief and those that do not support them. By doing so, we ensure that our brain is satisfied by facts and examples that it cannot easily argue against. Even if our brain is not completely convinced that the other person smiling was evidence that they don’t hate you, it will be better than avoiding eye contact and letting our brain assume that they were uninterested or frowning.
Supporting behavioural experiments through relaxation and mindfulness strategies
Behavioural experiments are powerful evidence-based strategies. However, sometimes engaging in what our brain tells us not to do can be pretty tough.
There are a couple ways to tone down our anxiety enough to work through behavioural experiments.
The first is through relaxation strategies. Regular relaxation practice, such as breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation, can help to reduce overall stress and anxiety, which can turn down the volume on anxiety enough for us to properly go through the behavioural experiment without our brain pushing us to stop or engage in avoidant behaviours.
The second is through mindfulness practice. Although relaxation and mindfulness can appear quite similar, the purpose of the practice is different. Mindfulness allows us to notice our anxious thoughts as they appear and simply let them go. To recognize that thoughts are just thoughts – taking the power away from them. Regular mindfulness practices may help us notice the thoughts that make us feel embarrassed and let them go.
It’s tough to feel anxious about simply existing in the same room as other people. And doubly so when we feel like everyone else seems to be perfectly confident and happy.
In these instances, it is important to recognize that people typically present themselves in a positive light when they may be facing similar anxious thoughts. Moreover, we’re often a lot more concerned about how we present to others, and care a lot less how others are coming across.
Although it’s easier said than done, I encourage you to take on a bit of a curious scientist stance and simply observe how others act towards you. It’s usually a little less negative than you think.
I hope these practices help you get you closer to feeling a little more comfortable in your daily life!
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